Are you selling a brand or a product?
Are you selling a brand or a product?

Whether to focus on promoting a product (or service) or the brand is a question that often comes up with clients. Is it better to focus on the attributes and benefits of the product? Or the ethos and values of the company behind it?

In many quarters, the latter approach has a bad reputation. It is often seen as lofty and idealistic; not rooted in commercial reality. Yet there are plenty of examples that prove otherwise.

In 2002, Honda launched a bold new approach to their advertising, starting with a television commercial entitled OK. This was followed by their Perfume and Banana press adverts. And then in 2003 came their Cog television advert. These talked of a company philosophy, not the features and benefits of Honda's cars. Yet by December 2003, less than two years later, annual sales had risen by 22%¹.

 

John Lewis have just launched a major new advertising campaign focusing on the partnership structure of their company. This strategy has served them well. Between 2012 and 2015, following the introduction of their now-famous Christmas television advertising, sales increased by 37%².

Focusing on the brand isn't right for everyone and therefore people are right to question the commercial validity of this approach. Many have had their fingers burned. So when should you focus on the brand and when should you just get on with selling a product? Our work is often about finding the right question to answer. In this case, the question is: Is your brand anything more than your product or service?

To understand what I mean, let's return to Honda. The agency team that worked on the campaigns said this: "We'd never encountered a corporate culture like it; maverick; feisty; inventive; still behaving as though their unpredictable engineering genius of a founder was stalking the corridors looking for engines to tweak. They were frustrated that this fantastic culture never found its way into the advertising. They really wanted a positive engagement with society. The Power of Dreams was true. It sprung directly out of their culture, not from a series of global focus groups, and that kind of human truth about a company was a powerful weapon."²

When people try to promote their brand and fail, it is often because they lack authenticity. A purpose or why has been invented in a workshop, but it's not a truth that permeates through every corner of the organisation. A wonderful image can be projected through communications, but if this doesn't ring true when people deal with customer service or experience the product then it will quickly fall apart.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, it was on the brink of collapse. One of the first things he did was create an advertising campaign, which he launched internally, saying: "Our customers want to know who is Apple and what is it that we stand for. What we're about isn't making boxes for people to get their jobs done, although we do that well. Apple's about something more. Its core value is that we believe people with passion can change the world for the better. What we're going to do in our first brand marketing campaign for several years is to get back to that core value."³ The campaign they launched was Here's to the Crazy Ones. And it worked because it was true. It encapsulated the values Steve Jobs stood for. It was the vision he pushed through the business. And it was something every Apple customer knew to be true when they used one of the products.

Patagonia are a more current example. They've recently launched a campaign called The Dam Truth4 about how damaging dams and reservoirs can be to nature and the environment. This is far from a token CSR initiative. Yvon Chouinard's book, Let My People Go Surfing, details the lengths he goes to push his vision through the business. He details at length how they embedded their ethos and values through a series of philosophies: product design, production, distribution, marketing, finance, human resources, management and environment.

Promoting something bigger than a product or service can be immensely powerful. Honda, John Lewis, Patagonia and Apple prove this. But it has to be authentic. If it isn't, then it's far better to focus on the features and benefits of the product or service. But in the meantime, start work on building a vision internally. This will take time; it won't deliver results overnight, but one day the company might just be able to advertise like these great brands, and experience the same commercial returns.

— RG

The Questions We Asked: The Westmorland Family
The Questions We Asked: The Westmorland Family

The Questions We Asked goes behind our work and gives an insight into the issues or opportunities our clients were grappling with prior to briefing us. Sarah Dunning, CEO of The Westmorland Family, takes up the thread:

We’re a second-generation family business. Mum and Dad were and still are hill farmers just outside Tebay in Cumbria. In 1967 the M6 was being built through the corner of their farmland. The government decided there was to be a motorway service area at this point and my parents, in their 30s and keen to get on, made a bid to build and run it. They won the bid and in 1972 they opened Tebay Services northbound.

Westmorland-Family-Grade-66

Over the next 30 years they grew the business and in 2005 Dad handed over the reins to me. The challenge for me was to retain the DNA of the business whilst redefining it for a new generation. It is easy to feel between the devil and the deep blue sea – you don’t want to be the one that destroys the work of the past generation but you know you must be bold if you are to move it on.

We formed a new leadership team and agreed that we wanted to grow and that another motorway service area seemed like the logical step. It took seven years to plan but we finally opened the northbound side of what became Gloucester Services in May 2014. So in the last 10 years we have gone from a local Cumbrian business employing 450 people to one with businesses 300 miles apart, employing 1,000 people.

Westmorland-Family-Gloucester-Shoot-04

One of the decisions you have to make as a business is when to bring in external expertise. This can be difficult, especially when it relates to your core brand, but that’s sometimes when you need it most. In 2012, prior to opening Gloucester Services, we were discussing problems that were strategic but also creative. Squad were a small and young organisation, they knew our business and had some empathy with it and they came with both a strategic and creative background. And so we set about working together.

There were many questions at that time, which tended to pose themselves in the order that the problem arose. One of the first ones was what to call our new services in Gloucestershire, partly because we had to invest a lot of money in motorway signage. However, in trying to answer one question, we often found that we couldn’t do so without first answering a series of other questions. It became apparent that the initial question wasn’t always the most important one. Often there was a question behind the question that we needed to address first.

It became clear that the most important first question to resolve was what the brand stands for. Our ethos, which sat at the heart of the business, was very much about being a Cumbrian family business that had grown out of the farm and remained tied to it. However, we had to square this with our desire to grow the business and specifically with the opportunity we had to build a business in Gloucestershire, which inevitably would take us out of our own Cumbrian farming community. This dichotomy extended to many aspects of our business - our product offer, our buildings, our branding - so we had start with some fundamental questions.

Should the buildings in Gloucestershire ‘feel’ like Tebay Services? Should the food be from Gloucestershire, or should we bring some from Cumbria?

We knew our businesses couldn’t be ‘rolled out’ as Costa, Pret and M&S are. It’s much harder to grow a business this way, because each business has to be bespoke. It also means we’ll never grow to be a giant as some businesses do; but perhaps that’s a good thing – there is something to be said for staying smaller and true to purpose.

However, whilst Gloucester Services should have its own personality, as distinct as Tebay Services, we wanted the customer to feel that they were still siblings, albeit not twins. We had to consider how the buildings and landscape should read back to our identity. We wanted to capture the essence of our Cumbrian businesses but re-express it in an appropriate way for a new build. So whilst both feature heavy timber and stone, and feel quite earthy in their way, we exchanged the agricultural and rustic approach of Tebay, for a more contemporary and sleek design.

The Westmorland Family Gloucester Services-Shoot-50

So how could we create a brand and branding that ties together our businesses with a recognisable thread, yet preserves that character and independence of them?

I have always believed that a business’ ethos should be the compass for every initiative and every innovation you undertake. Only by doing this will the customer understand what you are about. It is not enough to articulate your ethos (even if you can) but you have to deliver it through every touch point because some things are better felt than articulated.

Delivering it through every touch point is quite involved for us because we have around 100 acres of space, about 15,000 product lines and 1,000 people working in the business. We have 10 million customers a year through our businesses and our aspiration is that each one will leave with a sense of what we are about. I have no doubt that we regularly fall short of this aspiration, but we have to keep on trying.

So how could we make sure our branding was present but with a light touch - not like a rubber stamp?

To see how The Westmorland Family’s questions were answered, read the case study here.

Sarah Dunning and RG gave an extended talk based around this article at the 2016 Family Business United Annual Conference and the Cumbria Family Business Conference at Rheged the same year.

An electric shock
An electric shock

On July 25 1965, 17,000 adoring fans gathered in anticipation at the Newport Folk Festival.

The star-studded concert was playing out perfectly.

Hillbilly singer Cousin Emmy had just performed “Turkey in Straw”.

Up next was a 24-year-old Bob Dylan, who had already written one of the anthems of the freedom movement: “Blowin’ in the Wind”.

Introduced by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, Dylan strode on stage in a bright orange shirt and black leather jacket with a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar dangling from his neck.

Dylan, who was always chatty and cheerful with his audience, didn’t say a word.

His fans were expecting his usual stripped-down acoustic set, but he took to the stage backed by the five-piece Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

Just the night before, Dylan had got together with the band and rehearsed until dawn.

He wanted to try something new. Something different.

The band thundered into an electric rendition of Maggie’s Farm.

Dylan leant into the microphone: “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” his vocal almost drowned out by Bloomfield’s piercing lead guitar.

It was aggressive in tempo, distorted, raw — and above all, electric.

The majority of the fans looked on in confusion.

Legend has it that festival organizer Pete Seeger was so outraged that he grabbed an axe and tried to smash the sound system.

To many it was a musical betrayal: Dylan had abandoned the authenticity of folk for the glamour of rock ‘n’ roll.

This wasn’t the folk purist people had paid good money to see.

“Bring back cousin Emmy,” cried sections of the crowd.

The boos were intense.

After twelve minutes and just three songs, Dylan and the band unplugged and left.

That’s when the place went completely nuts.

And although he returned to play a further couple of acoustic numbers, for many his performance was an act of sheer heresy.

He didn’t appear at Newport again for another 37 years.

But it was to be a pivotal point in the history of rock music.

Dylan had turned everything on its head: proclaiming his artistic independence, demonstrating the poetic possibilities of rock ‘n’ roll.

And while fans in England a month later still booed and cried “Judas”, it wasn’t long before audiences got on board and eagerly followed Dylan into the mainstream.

His next rock album, Highway 61 Revisited, was hailed an instant classic and “Like a Rolling Stone” became his first hit single.

By the time his album Blonde on Blonde was released in 1966, the majority of former critics had been forced to admit that his switch to electric instruments hadn’t subdued his knack for writing rebellious songs.

Creative businesses talk a lot of differentiation and disruption.

But how often do they plug in and turn it up to eleven?

Favouring slight difference over blowing the doors off.

To be truly creative you need to take risks.

And sometimes that means being comfortable with an unpredictable outcome.

If Dylan had conducted, and listened to, research after his ’65 Newport appearance, he would never have blazed a high-voltage trail into rock history.

If he’d listened to Peter Yarrow, who had tried to convince Dylan to warm up his audience with a few acoustic numbers and explain that he was going to try something new that he’d been working on, there wouldn’t be documentaries and books dedicated to that summer’s night in 1965.

Like Dylan, creative businesses (and clients) have a duty to avoid dilution.

Say no to compromise and do stuff that stops people in their tracks.

People will remember that.

As Bob Dylan penned in Maggie’s Farm: “I try my best, to be just like I am, but everybody wants you to be just like them.”

Be brave.

Develop a distinctive voice of your own.

Now that’s electrifying.

—DB

Cousin Emmy doing her thang

Bob Dylan doing his

Seven feet tall
Seven feet tall

When Bill Shankly took over as manager of Liverpool Football Club they were a second-rate side, languishing in the old Second Division.

By the time he had left in 1974, they’d won three First Division titles, one Second Division title, two FA Cups and one UEFA Cup.

Unrecognisable from the deadbeat side he’d taken charge of in December 1959 - even down to their kit.

Because when Bill Shankly took over as manager of Liverpool they didn’t play in their iconic all-red strip.

They played in white shorts and white socks, with white piping on their red jerseys.

But Bill had an idea.

Impressed by Real Madrid’s all-white kit and with a gut instinct for colour psychology, he made a switch so powerful it’s hard to believe it hasn’t always been that way.

One day after training, Bill bounded into the players’ dressing room.

He threw a pair of vivid red shorts to one of his players.

“Get into those shorts and let’s see how you look,” announced Bill.

Because he had a theory: red is for danger; red is for power.

And he didn’t just choose any player to model this new kit: he chose his captain, Ron Yeats.

The six feet two inches fellow Scot he’d signed from Dundee United: a part-time slaughter man who was strong as an ox, and twice as wide.

The bemused centre-half duly obliged and donned the red shorts, with the addition of red socks.

As he walked down the steps towards the players’ tunnel he could see his manager, and assistant Bob Paisley, in the middle of the pitch.

And as Yeats approached them, all in red, Bill exclaimed: “Christ, Ronnie, you look awesome, terrifying, you look seven feet tall!”

His stocky presence was made all the more imposing by the all-red uniform.

A move intended to strike fear and intimidation into the hearts of opponents.

Bill was happy.

And on 25 November 1964, the man-mountain from ‘The Granite City’ of Aberdeen, led out his teammates against Anderlecht in the first round of the European Cup.

All in red for the first time.

The art of theatre was not lost on Bill, he instructed Yeats to stand in the centre circle of the Anfield pitch.

“Walk around him,” Bill proclaimed, as he invited a group of journalists to behold his rough-hewn granite obelisk.

Splendorous in scarlet.

The match was played at a cracking tempo.

Yeats the rock: a huge, defiant red-jasper sentinel in the middle of the defence.

Hunt, St John and Yeats on the score sheet: the captain’s forceful header - his first at Anfield.

They shattered the pride of Belgium: 3-0.

And Bill knew that a red glow had been ignited at Anfield that night: one that burned fiercely for more than 20 years.

He knew the importance of getting people to sit up and take notice.

His symbolic move captured their supporters’ imagination and that of the onlooking press too.

Projecting a very clear sense of who or what you are, and why you’re doing it, is critical to success.

Connecting as much, if not more, on an emotional level than a rational one.

Through the re-evaluative symbol of a red kit, Bill projected a powerful identity, not just a superficial image.

A far cry from Cardiff City’s move from a blue shirt to a red one in order to appeal to an international audience.

Bill’s change was nothing to do with marketing trickery and everything to do with what was happening on the pitch.

But its marketing power is recognised and felt globally.

And Bill knew the real secret of his kit change wasn’t just the effect it would have on the opposition and the supporters.

He knew that great football sides - like great companies or brands - are built from the inside out.

Bill Shankly, the revolutionary leader who rallied a red uprising, knew only too well, that his players wouldn’t only look seven feet tall.

They’d feel it as well.

- DB